Cross Cultural Facilitation in Eleuthera

In May 2013 I moderated a panel on the island of Eleuthera (one of the outer islands in The Bahamas) focused on tourism and development issues.  The panel was part of a day-long conference that the Cape Eleuthera Institute and a private school had convened to bring government officials, NGOs, local residents, and other concerned people together to become educated about, explore ideas for, a more sustainable tourism industry that would be beneficial to the ecology and economy of Eleuthera.  This conference was created partly in response to the numerous failed Club Med-style developments that littered the beaches and wreaked havoc on the landscape along Eleuthera's 110 miles of coastline.

Approximately 150 attendees showed up for the panel discussion on Tourism and Development, and I announced at the beginning of the session that I would ask the panelists a few questions, and then we'd open it up to the audience to hear their perspectives, concerns, questions and ideas.  

About half of the audience were local Bahamanians, and the other half were Anglos who either had homes on the island, or were involved in Eleuthera in some business or strategic way.  And most of the white folks sat on one side of the room, and most of the Bahamanians sat on the other side of the room.

When we opened the discussion up for questions and comments from the audience, about 20 hands went up, and as I called on people, I encouraged them to keep their airtime short so that everyone in the room could have a chance to ask a question, share an idea or perspective, or raise a concern. 

A gentleman standing in the back of the room wearing a canary yellow suit, with a black shirt and black tie, raised his hand.  When I called on him, he strode up to the front of the hall and said, "I need the mike."   As I started to unwind the hand-held microphone from the stand, he said, "No.  I need it on the stand.  I got to use my hands to talk!"

The gentleman then launched into a one-man street-theater show, waving his arms and dancing in place as he spoke about what Eleuthera was like when he was growing up.  He painted pictures with words about the importance of farming to the local economy, and what the culture was like in those days.

I quickly learned that Bahamanians don't talk--or think-- in a bulletized, Power Point-friendly, linear fashion.  They, like many other indigenous peoples, talk in narratives that weave anecdotal stories in with their presentation of ideas and the points they want to make.  This guy was talking jazz: poly-rhythmic, multi-keyed themes and phrases in sevenths, ninths and thirteenths.  He glided from one anecdote and idea to another in a free-associative fashion as he danced in front of the mike and waved his arms, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of his narrative.   Like a good mouth harp player, he could talk breathing in and breathing out.  He never took a break, or paused to let his words sink in before launching into a new idea.

After he warmed to his task, he talked about the way families got together and made music as a part of their daily lives.  And then he pulled a harmonica from his pocket and said, "I'm gonna share with you a taste of that music right now."  And right there, in front of a roomful of 150 attendees, with representatives from the Ministry of Tourism, the Executive Director of the Bahamas National Trust, and successful hotel and restaurant and tourism business owners watching, he launched into a ditty on his harp--while he danced and jittered in time with the music.

Well, the Bahamanians in the crowd were digging the hell out of it. They were jumping up and down in their seats and thrusting their arms into the air in time with the man's music.  They shouted and called in response as he played his harp, and clapped in time with the music.  They got off on the whole scene--the conference had moved closer to their cultural norms, and that got a whole lotta head-shaking going on on that side of the room. 

Meanwhile, the Anglos on the other side of the room were also keeping time--they were tapping their feet in irritation, or tapping their fingers on the face of their watches as they stared at me with raised eyebrows and an expression like, "So when are you going to put a stop to this, Mr. Facilitator?"   And at that moment, I realized I was in one of those delicate moments in cross-cultural group processes where two distinct cultures, sharing the same space and time, focused on the same issues, were having entirely different experiences at this break-out session during a day-long conference.  In other words, it was a prime learning opportunity.

So, I initiated a series of incremental moves that I have used in other forums to encourage participants who are taking an inordinate amount of airtime during a group Q & A session to curtail their presentation so others would have a chance to speak. 

I had been seated on the side of the stage, and the first move I made was to stand up and move to the periphery of the man's vision.  When that didn't get any response, I moved closer to him in small steps.  And by that time I was getting lots of rolled eyes, arms folded across chests, and tight-jawed expressions from the Anglos in the crowd.  While the Bahamanians  on the other side of the room were starting to dance in front of their chairs, and some had moved into the aisles where they had more room to groove with the man up front.

At this point, lots of people--on both sides of the room--were watching me to see how I would handle this.   And I was going through my own internal sort, as well.  What's the culturally acceptable way to handle this?" I'm asking myself.   "If I cut the guy off, am I going to offend the Bahmanians in the audience--who are more than half of the room?  But If I don't stop this guy soon, I'm going to lose the ability to continue to moderate the Q & A session and have time for others to share their view.  Oh, and my credibility as a facilitator will also take a hit with the Anglos in the room….”

And meanwhile, the jazz/rap performer kept cruising through his act--he still hadn't stopped to take a breath!   He had the amazing ability to talk, sing, whistle, or play his harp whether he was exhaling or inhaling.  

Then finally, FINALLY, he took a short breath.  I leapt forward a half step at that moment, leaned closer to him and said, "So, can you help us out with a few concluding ideas on what Eleuthera can do now to create a more sustainable tourism industry and economy?"

He turned and looked at me like he noticed I was there for the first time.  He threw up his hands and said. "Oh.  I'm done." And with that, he strolled off toward the back of the room to a huge round of applause from at least half of the room.  And I'm left standing in front of the room, surveying the crowd and wondering what just transpired..? 

As I looked out into the crowd, I searched for facial clues from the Bahamanians and the Anglos on how that abrupt ending was perceived.  Did I just make a cultural faux pas?  Did I offend half the room by jumping in like that?  But I couldn't tell for sure, so I said, "I saw other hands that were up, and we only have a few minutes left, so who else would like to share their perspective, or ask a question of our panelists?" 

And with that as a segue, the rest of the Q & A session played out along a more typical pattern, with most of the remaining folks who had their hands up getting a chance to speak.  When our time was up, I thanked everyone for coming, and hoped that they had found the discussion,  and exchange of ideas, stimulating.

After the session was over, as I left the open-air auditorium, I saw the guy in the canary-yellow suit standing outside talking with a group of other men.   I went up to him and stuck my hand out and said, "Hey, I hope the way I ended your time up front was okay..?"  And he said, "Oh, I don't know how to conclude, man.  I don't know how to finish. So you helped me, man."